Archival infrastructure/“info-structure” in the 21st century: how to provide the right services for the right publics

Cameroon National Archives, Yaoundé site, Scale model of Upgrading/Extension operations currently in progress. Work scheduled for completion in November 2020

In the 21st century, archival institutions throughout the world are faced with the challenge of catering to the plethora of information sources, media and contents arising from the fast and furious pace of technological development, not always without downsides. By their very role and nature, archives are expected to provide an adequate response to public demand for reliable and accurate information. For this, they have the basic infrastructure (ergonomic furniture and buildings) and so-called “info-structure” (namely records, search instruments, databases, etc.) that is sufficiently robust, flexible and adaptable to provide a user-oriented service. This is the prime objective behind the theme of “Designing the archives in the 21st century” selected for International Archives Week 2019, from 3 to 9 June. This year, the event will last a week rather than the traditional International Archives Day, for practical reasons connected with the date on which it would have fallen. The International Council on Archives has, in fact, turned what could have been an inconvenience into a good opportunity for archivists all around the world to open their doors, listen to their users and display their skills in their various working environments over a whole seven days!

Where there are well-established archival infrastructures/info-structures, these have generally been developed to architectural standards designed to preserve materials (archives and records) that are increasingly complex and vulnerable, where possible for ever and a day. They are also designed to ensure that these materials remain accessible to the public under the best possible conditions. For the archiving profession, the real challenge is that of striking the right balance between storage and accessibility. Yet, what would be the point of archives and records if they were not put to useful purpose and made available to users (i.e. members of the public)? How can we, as archives, diversify our activities to attract and cater to new users, especially those of “digital native” documents and those using a mixture of tradition and digital archives?

Annex of Buea

“User-oriented” archives can only be achieved if archival professionals are capable of adapting to the new techniques and undergo regular re-training. But it will also be necessary to encourage public/user involvement in producing search mechanisms offering an efficient response to their needs. While each individual profession may have its own specific knowledge and skills, it is also true to say that archivists and recordkeepers have to work with a range of subjects and objects from which they have to glean the essential substance in order to produce the appropriate search tools. Yet they are not always fully familiar with the latest vocabulary and grammar in the areas concerned. One of the major issues involved in designing archives in the 21st century will be that of engaging more with the public, especially over complicated classification and indexing procedures, in order to create a win-win situation.

As archivists, our task is to preserve records of human activity, so we must now design archives with human beings in mind. May I wish you all a great International Archives Week 2019.

By Dr. Esther OLEMBE, Director of National Archives of Cameroon- Senior Lecturer, University de Yaoundé II-SOA/ESSTIC
Head of Department of Library and Information Studies